History is written by the victors, and here in The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo brings a reckoning to the patriarchal architects of myth and power. Vo’s debut novella is slim but epic, spare yet breathtakingly evocative. It’s sharp as a needle and just as capable of weaving an entire tapestry of narrative—or undoing the carefully crafted fabric of a lie.
Empress has a framework, as essential to the work as the story within it. The empress is dead, a ghost in the wake of her rule, her successor readying for her first Dragon Court. Her handmaiden called Rabbit, now an elderly woman, unspools the truth about Empress In-yo. She has two listeners: Chih, a curious, traveling historian cleric who expects to hear a small, local story, and Almost Brilliant, their hoopoe companion. As Rabbit’s many tales unfold, she shares the secret intimacies of what became a sweeping narrative of empire and its remaking.
Chih learns that Rabbit was born in the very same small province in which they find her now—but as a child, she was sent to the imperial capital as compensation for taxes. There, she scrubbed the floors of the palace for years until she eventually rose through the ranks to become handmaiden to the new empress. In-yo hailed from the north, her arrival heralding the Emperor’s desire to further his reach to the northern realms. She was initially met with fear and distaste, as there was significant xenophobia directed at northerners, and Rabbit found herself drawn to this young, outsider empress. Once she produced a northern heir, the emperor had no more use for her, and sent her into exile—and Rabbit went with her.
Chih thinks they know the story from there, but slowly, carefully, Rabbit reveals the secret undercurrents of In-yo’s mythic reign: codes woven into prophecy, household objects imbued with power, love cut with sacrifice.
Vo builds a supremely satisfying world within the short span of these pages. The frame story of Chih and Rabbit is quietly revolutionary, the revelations of In-yo brimming with cleverly insidious rebellion, and the deft interweave of the narratives through time and Rabbit’s voice come to a thoroughly realized conclusion. Each facet of this novella gleams and comes together to shape the shining jewel that it is.
The prose here shimmers elegantly across the page. Vo’s world feels timeless and prescient at once, her measured, specific language evoking a spellbinding universe to get lost in, even within such a short work. This is a brilliantly developed bite, a satisfying window into an epic, the form a gratifying medium, allowing every carefully chosen word to shine as cleanly as it does.
Vo and In-yo alike find ways to subvert patriarchal restraints, and repurpose them into powerful tools for revenge. This is a subtle, tantalizing, poignant narrative. There are conspiracies here, and hidden agendas, motivations to be teased out and terrible bargains to be struck. There are compelling surprises that expand and enhance Vo’s world and her characters. There is desire here too, joy and love, and though it may be forever entangled with rage and grief, there is, at last, someone to tell it to. To share it with. Another generation to learn the truth, and remember.
Vo gives us adventure and political intrigue without queer trauma, a trans archivist who never has to defend or explain themselves. She centers queer Asian women and their stories, with an Asian nonbinary person serving as the archivist. Chih wants to learn, and recognizes when they don’t understand. They listen, with patience, deference, and respect. There aren’t heroes here, just nonbinary people and women making complex choices in a violent empire, trying to do what’s best for themselves and the people they love. Each chapter opens with seemingly ordinary artifacts: a bag of lychee, a box of black salt, a shrine token. Each artifact brings to life a fresh memory for Rabbit, a corner of the story waiting to be unfurled, and in this way, these objects don’t become poetry, but they reveal themselves to be inherently poetic, inextricably tied to a scoping, civilization-spanning narrative.
The story breathes between Rabbit and Chih, and through it all, In-yo haunts them both, haunts the very landscape of their world. The act of unraveling and reshaping of their stories, the reclamation of something closer to the truth, is a vindication within its own right.
As a queer Asian reader, this novella reminds me that even beneath the oppressive weight of imperial empire, there is hope for our stories. There is room for complexity, for ruthlessness and tenderness alike. There is myth to be made, even if it needs to be written in tooth and time. Someone is listening, and a reckoning is on the horizon.
Innovative and triumphant, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tautly braided, exquisite narrative that knows epics aren’t built on ballads and battlefields alone, but within whispers, and kept secrets, and memory. This novella defies categorization, queers it, wielding the deftest tools of high fantasy and folk fable alike to craft a satisfying generation-spanning feminist reckoning: of genre, of storytelling, of empire.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.